The most common use case for drones in this field is tracking whales’ behavior. To study the effects of a whale’s body condition in conjunction with the timing of its migration, Australian Ph.D. candidate, Grace Russell, uses drones to collect video footage of these animals in Australian waters. With the bird’s-eye view that a drone provides, she can categorize whales by age, species, and reproductive level to determine how these factors affect how whales respond to different environmental stressors. Funded by the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment/Ecological Society of Australia, the ultimate goal of this project is to assess whales’ body conditions at the time they reach breeding waters, and use this information for population recovery later on.
In an Arctic University of Norway study, drones are used to supplement existing methods of whale tracking. In a fjord with a hotspot of whale activity, marine biologist Ana Sofia Aniceto flies her drone, taking pictures every 3 seconds. This information, combined with acoustics, locates the animals when they vocalize and pinpoints the exact location of the whale in the fjord. Since scientists couldn’t rely solely on acoustics to study these animals (as they don’t always vocalize), drone imagery ensures that what they see manually is, in fact, a whale.